On March 16, 2013, Jhonatan David Vargas Becerra was detained by military officials and forcibly conscripted into the 28th Battalion of the Colombian National Army in Puerto Carreño.
As a follower of Jesus, Becerra had come to the conviction that he could not participate in the violence that was tearing his country apart. So he refused to join any of the many armed groups in Colombia, including the country’s own military.
Theoretically, in 2009, Colombian courts acknowledged conscientious objection as a fundamental right.
The military, however, has routinely refused to grant COs due process in making their appeal.
At the same time, they continue to carry out illegal roundups of young men in poorer communities for military service. Meanwhile, a shadow system of payments and fines allows many middle- and upper-class Colombians to avoid compulsory military service.
Three months after his forced induction into the army, Becerra received several days of home leave and refused to return to his battalion until the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled on his request to be granted CO status. The army, however, declared him to be “absent without leave.”
On Sept. 4, 2014, Becerra, an engineering student, was arrested near the University of Santander and sent to a military prison.
For more than 20 years, Justapaz—a Mennonite organization in Colombia committed to peacemaking, justice and nonviolent action—has been addressing issues related to militarization in Colombia, particularly the question of conscientious objection. In addition to educational campaigns, public demonstrations and lobbying, Justapaz has provided spiritual support and legal counsel to many young men seeking recognition for their religious objections to military service.
In a recent case before the Constitutional Court of Colombia, Reinaldo Aguirre, a young conscientious objector supported by Justapaz, testified that “as followers of Jesus of Nazareth, we oppose military or armed service because it is incompatible with the teachings and examples of Jesus Christ.”
“We owe our absolute loyalty,” Aguirre continued, “not to a nation or a state or government but to the Son of God, who teaches us to love our enemies, to do good to those who mistreat us and to pray for those who wish us to do harm.”
In January, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of Aguirre, ordering the National Office of Recruitment to acknowledge the right of conscientious objectors, to publish a booklet describing those rights, to cease the practice of arbitrary detention and to resolve applications for CO status within 15 days.
This decision by the Colombian court is cause for rejoicing.
Decades of hard work by Justapaz and other groups have helped nudge a highly militarized culture toward peace while bearing witness to the gospel and the teachings of Jesus as the deepest source of that peace. The decision should also come as encouraging news to those churches and groups in South Korea who continue to advocate on behalf of the nearly 700 young men who are sent to jail each year for their refusal to serve in the military on the basis of the religious convictions. During the past year, the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism worked with Justapaz to organize a global letter-writing campaign in support of Sang-Min Lee, a young South Korean CO associated with the Grace and Peace Mennonite Church, who is serving an 18-month jail sentence (see October issue). Dozens of people and congregations from around the world are participating in this effort. In the face of challenging circumstances, change can happen.
But as I followed the story of the struggle for conscientious objection in Colombia, I have also been moved by another significant detail—neither Becerra nor Aguirre are Mennonites. Becerra is a member of a Foursquare Gospel church, while Aguirre worships with Manantial de Vida Eterna, a Pentecostal megachurch in Bogotá. And most of the imprisoned COs in South Korea are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Whatever form it takes—compassion for the poor, reconciliation between victims and offender, disrupting cycles of violence, preaching the good news of salvation or advocating on behalf of conscientious objectors—a commitment to the gospel of peace is not a “Mennonite” distinctive.
These are the fruits of the Spirit at work in the lives of ordinary Christians from all denominational traditions, in cultures all around the world.
I thank God for the witness of the Mennonite church in Colombia, for the work of Justapaz, for the ruling of the Constitutional Court, for the faithful testimony of Jhonatan David Vargas Becerra and Reinaldo Aguirre and for ordinary Christians around the world whose lives have been transformed by the Prince of Peace.
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review. This Global Anabaptist column ran in the April 2015 issue.